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Moorcock's Metaphysics (4): The Multiverse

May contain spoilers.

Tanelornclipped_2 The Multiverse refers to a diverse collection of parallel worlds or universes – the many within one. Just as Law and Chaos have penetrated deep into the counterculture thanks to Moorcock’s writing, so the term “multiverse” (originally coined by 19th century luminary William James) has achieved its popularity thanks to Moorcock’s work. Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse refers in some sense to the collected settings of all his novels – both fantasy and literary, and is also referred to in the fantasy novels by the poetic name “The Million Spheres”, representing myriad alternative worlds that may be visited by the Eternal Champion.

These days, we are more likely to encounter the term ‘multiverse’ in a science fiction setting – as branching timelines, alternative realities, and quantum universes – but Moorcock’s writing is seldom within this genre. In fact, Mike has expressed a certain dispassion for strict science fiction (the expression of scientific knowledge or musings in a literary form, as with say, Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke), noting “science fiction achieves concentration by exaggerating the actual… and so does horror fiction, and crime fiction… you can get away with wild exaggeration in science fiction, as long as your reader accepts the science fiction form you’re using.” Although two of his earlier novels – now published as The Winds of Limbo and The Blood Red Game – fall broadly into this space, his work draws more commonly from literary, psychological and mythological roots, and is perhaps better characterised as fantasy, irrespective of the specific trappings employed.

There is a sense that Moorcock’s Multiverse is not a physical space at all, but a literary one – indeed, this is not the parallel universes of, say, Star Trek, where most of the physical laws remain the same and only the events may change, the very nature of each ‘sphere’ of the Multiverse can be wildly different. There is a sense, therefore, that while the Million Spheres represent a genuine diversity of realities for Mike’s character’s to explore, it figuratively represents the whole of his stories – a literary superset, comprised of many different styles and settings, ancient and modern, fantastical and down-to-earth.

Because it is a literary space, there are few explicit rules to be followed, and it is possible for time and causality to vary wildly from one sphere to the next (from one story to the next…) As a result of this, the death of a character does not mean that this character will not be seen again – after all, in a multitudinous literary space, what are the limits save imagination? Colin Greenland has described this aspect of Moorcock’s work – the fact that characters may occur again and again, irrespective of their earlier fates – with the phrase “Death is no obstacle” (also the title of a book Greenland published containing a dialogue between him and Moorcock discussing Mike’s work).

Thus the Eternal Champion stories represent a recurring fantasy mythology involving constant repetition of events, with the hero being able to work subtle influence only at the expense of considerable effort. These kinds of stories represent many of the “Milllion Spheres”. Additionally, there are expressions of the same themes into a more familiar, “modern” context, such as the Jerry Cornelius stories (which we will look at next week), and also the more grounded literary pieces like Mother London and King of the City, which lack fantastic elements, but contain many of the same thematic elements (and often a crossover in the names of characters too).

A recurring symbol within the Multiverse is that which mankind craves, but can never quite reach. The earliest appearance of this kind of metaphor in Moorcock’s work is in The Golden Barge, in which the protagonist is forever chasing the barge of the book’s title down the river, but can never reach it. The same theme is explored many times, for instance, in the Dead God’s Book in the Elric stories, which promises the satisfaction of dreams but when Elric finally lays hands upon it, it crumbles to dust – the essence of the unattainable goal.

Perhaps the most famous expression of this theme is the Eternal City of Tanelorn (pictured above in an airbrush painting by Rodney Matthews, a print of which adorned my walls as a teenager). Tanelorn is said to exist in some form in all the Million Spheres, and cannot be destroyed. Heroes strive to reach it, mostly in vain, and the various facets of the Eternal Champion have a different relationship with the city according to their fates. Hawkmoon, perhaps the most moral of the incarnations, achieves his freedom from struggle in Tanelorn at the climactic original “ending” of the Eternal Champion mythos, The Quest for Talelorn, and Erekosë too finds an end to his struggles here – albeit a tragic conclusion, as befits his questionable history. Elric, alone among the incarnations, reaches Tanelorn easily – and because of this, finds no peace there. Since the city represents the utopian goal that cannot be achieved, only strived for, there can be no peace without the struggle to attain it.

In the Eternal Champion mythos, the space between the Million Spheres is referred to as the Seas of Fate, upon which the Dark Ship sails. This symbol can perhaps be compared to the “Ship of Fools” (a common allegory in Western thought, which possibly originates in Plato’s Republic): mankind is seen as a vessel crewed by people who are confused, deranged, or oblivious, a ship without a pilot and seemingly forever adrift. The Ship of Fate in Moorcock’s Multiverse is filled with lost souls seeking Tanelorn, but the Blind Captain and his twin brother, the Steersman, never seem to take them there. The Captain and his brother are later revealed to be metaphors for mankind, and the creation of Tanelorn is accredited to them – which is to say, that it is mankind’s imagination which creates unachievable utopian goals.

From 1981, Moorcock develops a new strand to this idea, one which highlights an essential aspect of the utopian quest – that it may be unattainable does not destroy its value. This begins with the introduction of new incarnations of the Eternal Champion, the members of the Von Bek family, who are intimately connected with the Holy Grail. The first of these novels, The Warhound and the World’s Pain, which was nominated for the World Fantasy Award, deals with the end of the era of the ancien régime – when Europe was organised under a strict chain-of-command claimed to begin with God, and proceeding down through the King, the clergy and the aristocracy to the peasants. It is thus a tale from the dawn of the Age of Reason, when mankind is becoming able to lead itself (and thus also the beginning of the transformation of the Christian Church from a source of authority to its younger and still-evolving role as a source of spirituality).

The Grail (which appears in this book as a simple clay pot, but has other forms in other stories) is an embodiment of Harmony, and in the Eternal Champion mythos appears also in other forms (such as the Runestaff in the Hawkmoon stories, and perhaps also in an early form in Phoenix in Obsidian as the Screaming Chalice). Ulrich Von Bek, the protagonist in The Warhound and the World’s Pain, is charged by Lucifer (who seeks to reconcile with God) to find a cure for the world’s ills in the form of the Grail. He is opposed by the sinister Klosterheim, an embodiment of the failed Eternal Champion (another recurring symbol, usually in the form of the villainous Prince Gaynor the Damned), who arguably represents nihilism against the Eternal Champion's existentialism.

Ulrich notes, with characteristic fatalism: “Man struggles in the belief that he can, by dint of perseverance, affect his own destiny. And all those efforts, I think, lead to nothing but ruin.” In seeking to recover the Grail on Lucifer's behalf, however, he learns that “one must seek to become human and to love the fact of one’s humanity”. In discovering this, he also discovers the Grail. Upon delivering the cup to Satan, Lucifer remarks: “Man, whether he be Christian or pagan, must learn to rule himself, to understand himself, to take responsibility for himself. There can be no Armageddon now. If Man is destroyed, he shall have destroyed himself.”

Similar themes are explored in a modern context in the stories of Moorcock’s most infamous and critically acclaimed creation, a lascivious secret agent and adventurer who brings the Eternal Champion mythology back down to earth with a cataclysmic bump.

The opening image is Tanelorn, by the artist Rodney Matthews, and can be ordered from his website as a print. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Next week: Jerry Cornelius


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You're missing a 'next' link on this one.

Should be fixed now. Thanks for flagging this, roger!

I've enjoyed this essay which gives one of the most coherent preces of my work. Hope you don't mind me pointing out, though, that I've developed the idea of the Multiverse in a pretty straightforward 'scientific' way since I first proposed it in a space opera The Sundered Worlds in which I also anticipated Black Holes and, for what it's worth, macro-computers. I wasn't at the time aware that the term had previously been used by James and Powys (to mean different things)but I was describing physical ideas, not metaphors. I've continued to develop this idea in various places (most recently in an introduction to the collected MM's Multiverse comic and in a short short The Visible Men in NATURE). I was riffing off notions of Entropy and 2nd Law of Thermodynamics as I understood them. Although by no means a physicist, I've always been interested in theoretical physics, including anomalies in quantum theory. I'm not making great claims, of course, but used to argue regularly that theoretical physics and poetry had much in common (I remember Robert Oppenheimer arguing much the same) - which is how I lucked on the ideas in this otherwise rather pulpy early sf story which first appeared in SF ADVENTURES in 1963. Only later did I begin using the idea as a metaphor for the mind. Again, thanks for the essay.

Mike: it was my pleasure to write this serial; since I will never have the time to write the Moorcock Concordance I once dreamed of, I will settle for your kind words on this sequence of posts as a final reward for decades of avidly consuming your novels. :)

I can see what you mean about the Multiverse idea developing in a "scientific" manner, but I still feel that the way you play with the idea in many of your stories lends some weight to my claim that you are using it as a literary space - although, of course, you are the definitive expert on your own work! :) I think, perhaps, you are clarifying the way the idea originated for you, rather than disputing the way you have used it later.

As an ex-astrophysicist myself, I was struck by your claim (via Jerry Cornelius) in "The Condition of Muzak" that grand unification theory would fail (which, although it is open to debate, it did). That may have been beginning of my healthy scepticism of shoehorn solutions to theoretical problems in physics (including, for instance, the Higgs boson). This is precisely because, as you say here, physics and poetry have something fundamental in common - a striving towards elegance through formal construction. Art and science are not as different as we sometimes assume! :)

Many thanks for stopping by to comment! An unexpected and most pleasant surprise, since I thought you would have remained within the infinite folds of the Miscellany rather than venturing out into my own virtual backyard. ;)

Best wishes! (And remember me if you need a videogame consultant, as it would be my pleasure to assist you or your agent in this regard).

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